SundanceTV’s latest original series is set in Australia, but don’t expect surf and sun from Cleverman, a sci-fi thriller steeped in Australian Aboriginal mythology. You won’t find much sun on Sundance: Since entering the original content market with the excellent Jane Campion-directed Top of the Lake in 2013, the channel has cemented its brand of globe-spanning tales of corruption and disenfranchisement in moody, waterfront towns.
The premise of Cleverman recalls District 9, the 2009 film set in a Cape Town overrun by alien creatures that the government has cordoned off into a shantytown. Cleverman is set in the near future, and centres on the Hairypeople, the first inhabitants of Australia, who resemble humans but have different DNA. The Hairypeople are restricted to the Zone, a slum on the edge of the City once inhabited by the poor and now a tenuous haven for Hairypeople. Humans can move in and out of the Zone through heavily guarded checkpoints, but Hairypeople are forbidden from entering the City.
At the start of Cleverman’s six-episode first season, tensions are high as the Hairypeople are blamed for a series of brutal murders — victims are found with their hearts ripped out of their chests, which the City’s inhabitants attribute to the Hairies’ immense physical strength; the Hairypeople, based on Australian Aboriginal lore, are stronger than humans, have fingernails like wire cutters, and live for some 200 years.
Enter the “Cleverman.” Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard) grew up in the Zone, the product of an Aboriginal father and a white mother. He runs a dive bar with his best friend, but he’s got a side hustle: He rents apartments to Hairypeople and then rats them out to the Containment Authority (CA), the government-funded force responsible for capturing Hairies outside of the Zone. In the first episode, a news anchor instructs her camera crew to keep rolling as the CA evicts a family of Hairies. Things get out of hand as the family is torn apart, screaming, and the CA end up shooting and killing the youngest daughter. Koen’s a swaggering bad boy, and would you believe that unbeknownst to him, he’s the only one with the power to save the Hairies from their fate?
In Cleverman’s interpretation, the Cleverman possesses supernatural powers passed down from his ancestors. When Koen’s uncle dies, he names him the Cleverman — a figure imbued with special abilities, and, in Aboriginal culture, a leader in the clan and a conduit between the physical world and the world of Australian Aboriginal mythology, known as the Dreaming. His appointment angers Koen’s half-brother, Waruu (Rob Collins), a public advocate for the Hairies who grew up with the assumption that his uncle would eventually name him Cleverman.
The Cain and Abel angle is one of a few elements of Cleverman that feels a little worn; the segregation plot is also a bit familiar, and the dialogue can be stilted and clichéd (“Past is the past. Can’t change it”). Ironically, considering the Cleverman conceit, the writing doesn’t move as seamlessly between the supernatural/sci-fi elements and the more realistic aspects of the series as it could. When Koen demonstrates for his friends his newfound ability to heal himself, like Hayden Panettiere’s cheerleader character on Heroes, his buddy Blair (Ryan Corr) declares, “That demonstrates a level of awesomeness that is truly badass.”
But the show — which boasts an 80 percent Indigenous cast — features strong performances, particularly from Deborah Mailman, who plays Koen and Waruu’s mother figure, Aunty Linda. (Like the aunts on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it’s unclear exactly how old she is, but Cleverman, an Australian/U.S. co-production, adheres to the age-old habits of Hollywood in casting the 44-year-old Mailman as the 37-year-old Collins’s mother). Page-Lochard is scruffily appealing as Koen; there’s a glimmer of Michael B. Jordan in his sensitive tough guy routine. And Tasma Walton — who plays the mother of the family evicted in the first episode, who is later sold off and pimped out to men who are sexually attracted to Hairies — does excellent work without much dialogue, expressing all the panic, confusion, and pain of her situation with little but her eyes.
There are other elements of the story — Frances O’Connor and Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen, Cleverman’s biggest bold-faced names, play a well-to-do married couple struggling to have a baby, and there’s an Orphan Black-esque plot involving a research lab with a nefarious interest in the Hairypeople. The details can be hard to follow without the aid of a press kit, but at a manageable six episodes, the show’s first season neatly weaves together its narrative strands.
Like WGN America’s Underground, about a group of runaway slaves on a Georgia plantation, Cleverman pours an underdog minority tale into the superhero mold. Underground’s creators conceived of their protagonist, a house slave who slowly becomes emboldened enough to escape north, as “the origin story of a superhero”; Cleverman’s creator, Ryan Griffen, who is Aboriginal, has spoken of the Cleverman role in a similar light, aiming to create, “a superhero my own son could connect to, while learning about his Indigenous culture.”
The names and mythical figures may be unfamiliar to a North American audience, but the allegory is clear. Reporting on the death of the little Hairy girl at the beginning of the first episode, the TV news ticker reads, “subhuman minor killed”; some “subbies” shave off their facial and body hair to try to fit in, while others proudly display their natural, thick coat. When one Hairyman is imprisoned, there’s a close-up shot of the guard branding him with a hot iron that resembles a similar scene in the recent remake of Roots. Later, when a guard re-names a Hairyman “Trevor” (“I’m not gonna use that jungle shit”), it’s another echo of the slave name, Toby, given to the protagonist of Roots when he’s kidnapped from his African home and taken to a Virginia plantation. When a group of Hairies threatens to hurt a news anchor who comes to the Zone to interview them, one girl protests, “She’s white. She’s famous. And they’ll come after all of us. You know it.”
I’m still waiting for Sundance to lighten up a little, but with Cleverman, the channel has shown an admirable curiosity, a willingness to poke into corners of the world that American audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with. Superheroes may be an American invention, but through powerful allegory, Cleverman demonstrates that the persecution of minorities is a problem the world over.